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Zero visibility on the interstate
A non-conventional use of a thermal imager occurred in Alachua County, FL, in January 2012. Due to a combination of early-morning darkness, heavy fog and residual smoke from a nearby brushfire, visibility for traffic driving on Interstate 75 was quickly reduced to zero. Twelve cars and seven tractor-trailers eventually were involved in a series of multi-fatality crashes that spanned more than a one-mile stretch of roadway that would ultimately claim 11 lives. One of the first-arriving apparatus from Alachua County was Quint 16. Upon arrival, the crew encountered zero visibility and was forced to stop short of the scene. The officer possessed the foresight to grab the thermal imager on the rig and exited the vehicle. He then used the imager to guide the apparatus farther into the scene as he walked alongside the vehicle, verbally instructing the driver as they slowly proceeded into the carnage.
Thermal imagers cannot see through water, and since fog is simply fine droplets of water, the ability for any imager to provide the user with a suitable image is very limited. However, the officer in the above incident relayed details of the image he obtained, under very difficult circumstances, which made the difference in being able to better position the apparatus to initiate size-up and then subsequently rescue and suppression operations.
Aiding in searches for victims
Thermal imagers can also be used to search around vehicles for ejected or walk-away victims. In a situation in Missouri, a fire department was called to a car-versus-tree accident. On arrival, responding crews located a severely damaged vehicle with airbag deployment and blood present on the airbag, yet no victim could be located. Firefighters used a thermal imager to look in the car and only the driver’s seat showed the imprint of an occupant. A search of the area was performed without locating any victims. Upon termination of the search effort, two firefighters were making their way back to the apparatus and using the thermal imager for night-vision purposes. As they approached the apparatus, they noticed an object in the branches of the tree immediately above the vehicle. This object turned out to be the driver, who was intoxicated and had warrants for his arrest and the only place he could find to hide was the tree he had hit!
I have heard more than one fire service leader say that thermal imaging is probably the best innovation for the fire service since the self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). By finding new uses for this technology, including the non-structural ones in this column, we can reduce losses to life, property and our fellow firefighters. n